Silver Lining Playbook: Fiesta Bowl Edition

Nick Watkins - Notre Dame CB
Photo: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame lost a New Year’s Day bowl game by 16 points to a talented Ohio State team and lost its final chance for a statement making moment for the 2015 season.  The Irish now head into the off-season with a lot of questions to answer – most notably how to fix the Irish defense – but all was not lost in the Fiesta Bowl and if you are looking to read about how poor the Irish played or how this loss is the end of the world, this column is most likely not for you.

Despite the disappointing outcome and the poor performance of both the Notre Dame defense and special teams specifically, there were some positives to be found in Notre Dame’s latest bowl failure.  That might be tough to imagine right now, but we did see some things yesterday that should give hope for the future.

Here are just a few of them.

The play of Nick Watkins

With Keivarae Russell and his replacement, Devin Butler, both out for the Fiesta Bowl, Watkins was thrust into the starting lineup in a sink or swim scenario.  The sophomore might have had to do a heck of a lot of doggy-paddling to stay afloat early, but once he settled in, he played very, very solid.  Ohio State smartly attacked the first time starter who came in with very little game experience and while he gave up a few passes early, he settled in and ended up making a hell of a play in the endzone in the third quarter with the game still very much in doubt.  With the future of Russell still up in the air, Watkins staked an early claim to the starting position opposite Cole Luke in 2016 and his performance against Ohio State should have Irish fans feeling a lot more at ease with the cornerback position in 2016 even if Russell leaves for the NFL.

The emergence of Andrew Trumbetti

A lot was expected of Trumbetti in 2015, but the sophomore failed to really progress much from what we saw from him as a frosh.  Against Ohio State, however, Trumbetti easily played his best game in a Notre Dame uniform.  He was a disruptive force the entire second half and was one of the few bright spots on the defensive side of the ball for Notre Dame yesterday finishing with 4 tackles, 2 tackles for loss including his first sack of the year and 2 QB hurries.  The Irish desperately need to find a pass rush this off-season if this team wants to make another run at the playoffs in 2016 and Trumbetti showed a bit of a glimpse that he just might be able to fill that role even if he is more of a power rusher than a speed rusher.  Sometimes a big bowl game performance like Trumbetti’s is all a player needs to go into the off-season on a mission.  Hopefully that is the case here.

The return of Jarron Jones

This one could also be labeled as a bit of a depressing moment from yesterday since it made it impossible not to think about “what could have been”.  Jarron Jones return in a very limited role for his first action in over a year (including missing all of spring practice and most of fall camp) and still might have been the most impressive defensive lineman for Notre Dame yesterday with Sheldon Day a bit banged up.  Jones got the type of push on the interior line that Notre Dame lacked in 2015 and that could have easily been the difference of a few points at Clemson or Stanford.  Getting Jones back into action and seeing him play as effectively as he did should also send him into the off-season with the right mindset after so much time lost.  Losing Day this off-season will hurt, but Jones has the ability to be an All-American next fall if he stays healthy.

The reappearance of Corey Robinson

In a year full of explosive offensive plays and gaudy stats for Notre Dame, one of the few disappointments was the regression of Corey Robinson.  His breakout sophomore season had some predicting the junior could have left for the NFL after this season back in August, but his game fell off.  For a brief moment on Friday though, we saw the reappearance of Robinson with three straight catches for 46 yards on a critical drive.  Should Will Fuller leave for the NFL, Notre Dame will be replacing all three of its starting wide receivers in 2016 and having Robinson return to form would be huge.  Notre Dame could have also used the lanky junior in the redzone this season as they struggled to put 7 on the board instead of 3 far too often.  Robinson, along with improved play from the tight ends, could be the key to fixing the redzone woes in 2016.

The impact from Jonathan Bonner

There might not be another player on the team who has drawn as much praise from Brian Kelly despite playing so sparingly as Jonathan Bonner.  Yesterday though we got a brief glimpse about what Kelly has been talking about the last two years.  Bonner was pressed into action with all of the injuries up front and played well.  He got a nice push on the inside and staked his claim as the leader in the clubhouse right now to replace Day heading into the season.  He will have a battle on his hands though from Jerry Tillery who will likely move from the NT position once he is out of Kelly’s doghouse for whatever it is he did to be suspended for the Fiesta Bowl.

The hands of Torii Hunter

If there is one receiver on the roster who could potentially fill the role of Will Fuller in 2016, it’s Hunter and his performance yesterday gave some hope the big things could be in store for him in 2016.  Hunter hauled in four passes for 52 yards including a ridiculous one handed, diving grab in the first half.  Hunter finished the year with 28 catches for 363 yards and two touchdowns and before you scoff at the notion of him replacing Fuller with that stat line, remember, prior to Fuller’s breakout 2014 season, he had just 6 catches for 160 yards coming into last season.

The play calling of… whoever actually is calling plays

Notre Dame’s offense left a lot of points on the field yesterday, but that was more the result of poor execution than poor play calling.  The offensive line did a very poor job against a depleted Ohio State front and Deshone Kizer missed some throws that he is going to be kicking himself for when he watches the film, but the play calling yesterday was pretty damn good.  The pass from Hunter to Alize Jones was dialed up at just the right time and was open but Hunter put just a little too much on his throw.  The staff also did a good job of getting the matchups they wanted and had Kizer connected with Chris Brown on one of a couple of deep throws when Brown got behind the defense, who knows how the game would have played out.  Most importantly though, the play calling in the redzone was spot on.  Notre Dame was 3 for 3 with 3 touchdowns against a damn good defense yesterday.  The coaching mix the Irish have on the offensive side of the ball right now is really working well with the three headed monster of Kelly, Mike Denbrock, and Mike Sanford.  I only wish they could find that type of cohesion and synergy on the defensive side of the ball in 2016.

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  1. Let’s be clear here, and not distort others’ words. No one is saying ND should sell its soul to the devil. On the contrary. As a Catholic school, ND should embody charity. Would everyone on here agree that charity is a Christian value?! Perhaps what ND is lacking precisely now is some mmodicum of charity. Instead, it seems like the university is acting more like legalistic Pharisees than Christians. In the name of its man-made traditions, the ND administration is acting like those white-washed tombs Christ spoke of, more interested in preserving power and status than showing some charity towards young men who are trying their hardest to serve their team, their university, their community, etc.

    Like I said, I find it ironic how many claim to be all for preserving ND’s sacrosanct “traditions”. If they were truly committed to those so-called ND original distinctives they would have to be against ND admitting non-Catholics, women, upper-division and grad transfers, early enrollments; they would have to be against 12-game schedules, bowl games, redshirting, training tables, etc. I don’t see any of these holier-than-thou types on here intimating that ND should only recruit Catholics, go back to being an all-boys school, play only 10 games, go back to the old academic calendar thereby making it unfeasible to play bowl games, stop accepting transfers and early enrollments, or redshirting. This appeal to so-called sacrosanct “traditions” is a red herring argument used by those who want to seem holier than thou and loyal sons of ND. Like the Pharisees of old, they want to misrepresent the words of others and puff their chest with pride about how holy they are.

    Imagine if I said about some of those commenting above that they thought everything was fine with ND football, that there was nothing that needed improvement, that ND football today was exactly what it was under Ara, Devine, Holtz, etc. They would be correct to charge me with distorting their words. They would say that they aren’t blind to the issues (e.g., with the D) with the team. They would say that they are merely saying that in their opinion ND’s on the rise. In that case, they would be correct to say that I was misrepresenting their words. Thus, I would say, then, do unto others as you would have done to you. Please don’t then distort the words of us here who are critical but in no way giving up on ND football. Don’t challenge our loyalty by deliberately misrepresenting us. With all due respect to them, with “bj” or “Bruce Johnson”, on the other hand, well, charges of giving up on the team are warranted.

    What I and some of us here are saying, to put it simply, is that ND needs to seriously look back at what it was doing when they first hired Lou Holtz, who brought in a ton of talent that returned ND to the top. Did ND sell its soul to the devil when it hired Holtz and let him tell the administration to work with him? I for one don’t think so. What the Holtz regime proved, contra the don’t sell-out bunch, is that you can have it both ways at ND. It’s been done. It can be done again. Where there’s a will there’s a way, friends.

    Go Irish!

  2. Here’s a classic from the zipster:

    November 25, 2015 at 10:58 am
    Kyle, you are a moron with that statement “I think what we need to think about too is would it be worth it to not make the playoff, and then win a big bowl game compared to making the playoff and potentially getting blown out.” Please find a gun and kill yourself.

  3. No Damian, I’m not “proud” of graduating our athletes. It’s a nice sidenote/asterick for the program. If that was the case, I’d be “proud” of Harvard’s graduating class, or Yale, or Northwestern. I’m here for athletic excellence on the field of gridiron, which that has not been for quite some time. Also, the CFB committee rewarded Oklahoma and Alabama, so SOS doesn’t mean shit when playing pitiful teams. They got in and played some crappy teams, difference is they won their big games. Join a conference and don’t play 1AA schools, you can still play USC and Stanford every year. Now there’s your SOS argument validated.

  4. Wow, negativity really abounds. I believe ND is still trending up personally. But if some people want to believe ND football is over, well, that’s up to you I guess.

    I think there are some things ND should never give up. It’s commitment to academic excellence. I’m proud that ND is one of the top schools, if not the top, in graduating it’s athletes. That’s incredible and something we all should be proud of. And the expectation that our athletes adhere to discipline. Now, that does not mean adjustments can’t be made and things done to make sure the student-athletes aren’t given every opportunity to succeed. But we should stay committed to those 2 goals. I already follow an NFL and NBA team, so I don’t need ND to act like a mini NFL or NBA factory.

    Also, I don’t think ND needs to join a conference. Swarbick did a good job threading the needle. Our 5 game commitment was necessary for scheduling and bowl tie in purposes, but it maintains our independence. I love the fact that they are one of the few teams to never play a division II school and that they try to schedule good teams across the country. Without a conference championship, strength of schedule is crucial, and the CFB playoff committee has made it a point to reward SOS.

    The days of Rockne, Ara, Holtz, yes they are in the past. It’s always important to remember the past, but, all of college football has changes substantially since those days. ND can remember the past and use its inspiration, but they need to chart a new course. They have already started some of that. Gone are the days when any team can thoroughly dominate everyone else. I think 10 to 12 win seasons are within ND’s grasp now, and if you look at elite teams, that’s where they are at. Now ND needs to win an NC and I do believe we are close to that. Improved red zone efficiency and an improved defense are what they need. Do those 2 things and I think we can be there.

    So I say, don’t give up.

  5. ND certainly won’t wise up when it comes to admissions and rules until the goose starts showing signs of some SERIOUS deterioration. But instead, ND fans pack the house everywhere they go. Sure, if given the choice between winning and losing, the ND admin will of course prefer to win. However it’s beyond clear that they do not truly put the emphasis on winning. If ND’s top priority is ensure that the Frozen Five learns to use term paper footnotes efficiently, then fine, but be sure to steer clear of playing any and all elite football teams. Do not accept bids to marquee bowl games only to inevitably get embarrassed. Let’s just stick to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl instead. As long as the program remains profitable, nothing will change. The only hope is that they start bleeding money somehow, and then MAYBE they’ll make an effort to compete.

  6. MikeT,

    ND will have to make a decision or it will be made for them. Mediocrity is now the norm in S. Bend. Soon, ND will be deprived of the goose that laid the golden egg, namely, football excellence. If ND football continues down this route to fast becoming Northwestern, and later Yale, then it will stop receiving the benefit of the doubt with many pollsters, the lucrative TV deals, the visits of the few top recruits they reasonably have a shot at, etc. We have practically conceded on this site that ND is no longer a promising job for the elite coaches. Why would it be?!

    In my opinion, the ND administration needs to return to the early Holtz era when it comes to admissions and rules or it needs to join the Ivy League. As things are now, ND will not be competitive at the highest levels of D1 football. It will continue to win games, but it will never truly challenge for elite status. Like others here have stated, I sure hope I’m wrong and have to eat my words, though.

    I recall growing up watching ND football under Ara and never thinking the Irish would get beat by anyone. I was always shocked when my Fighting Irish lost a football game. I recall beating the powerhouses of Michigan, SC, Bama (in back to back bowls), etc. on a regular basis.

    Now, I feel defeated even before big games even start. I just have no confidence that ND will hang with the best. I expect to get beat and get beat bad. I also knew the Stanford kicker would make that last-second FG because I’ve seen that happen too much over the last 20-odd years. I’m sure many of you knew that before the ball was even snapped, that it would go right through the uprights.

    Two-plus decades of mediocrity have just beaten me down. Unless ND receives some divine assistance or gets a clue, I see very little hope of seeing ND football return to its greatness, which it had in spades when I was a child.

    Regardless, I will continue to cheer, cheer for ol’ Notre Dame!

  7. Well if they can relax all those standards why not take it a few steps further? By the way I am far from being a traditionalist..I think they need to even chuck the independent status. I don’t see any advantage to it.

  8. SFR comments are very insightful I feel. ND (Notre Dame not only No Defense) long ago broke from tradition as he points out here in this string. Also he is right to say this is an excuse. I recently posted on another article on this site the facts as I see them. BK, though improvement over the post Holtz litany of coaches, is NOT now in the upper echelon of coaches necessary to compete regularly for the national championship, and neither therefore, is his team.

    As I stated in the other article, we all love ND, and I truly hope I’m wrong, and BK will get “us” there, but facts and performance do not lead me to very hopeful he will.

  9. Thing is MikeT, there are no true traditionalists on here.

    If there really were, then they’d be against ND recruiting and admitting non-Catholics, admitting co-eds, playing in more than 10 regular season games, playing in bowl games, playing freshmen, redshirting, allowing upper-division and grad transfers and early enrollments, providing the team a training table, etc. I could go on listing past ND distinctives or “traditions” that the university abandoned in the past for the sake of its and the football team’s viability.

    Do the following mental exercise, MikeT, and imagine having to recruit at ND if you could only go after Catholic boys, to sign to play at an all-boys school, that only plays 10 regular season games and doesn’t play conference championship or bowl games, that doesn’t play freshmen or let them redshirt (so they lose a year), that doesn’t allow early enrollment for those eligible, and doesn’t provide the football team a training table. What would ND’s recruiting look like under those restrictions to honor “tradition”? I wonder where the football team’s recruiting rankings would be then on ESPN, Bleacher, Rivals, Scout, etc.? How many 5 stars could you land to play at an all-boys, Catholics-only, Ivy-League-level academic institution?

    The “tradition” argument is just another in a long litany of excuses made for the mediocrity this football program has fallen into over the last 20-plus years. No one really buys the “traditions” excuse, MikeT, but it sounds good and makes you sound like a loyal son of ND if you use it. Posturing is always a good backup when logical thinking fails.

    Go Irish!

  10. SFR

    I agree with you. ND has to decide if they are going to compete in football or compete solely in education. With the requirements placed on recruits so they can keep their players academically eligible they hamstring themselves from the beginning.
    I also believe they need to join a conference to give themselves a path to the playoffs even if they lose one or two games in a season.
    Some folks say stick with Tradition, but at some point you have to admit that your tradition has been turned into an impediment rather than advantage. That in my opinion is where ND finds itself today and eventually as the older fans die off so will ND’s relevance in CFB.

  11. There is still a huge disparity in talent when you compare Notre Dame to teams like Alabama, Ohio State, and Ole Miss. If you look at the recruiting classes of ND and Alabama between the years of 2010-2015 you’ll see that Alabama brought in 21 five star recruits compared to NDs 7 five star recruits. Thats a huge disparity in talent. But it doesn’t end there as Alabama also brought in 11 JUCO 4star recruits. ND doesn’t consider JUCO players. Its not an even playing field and it never will be.

    As far as injuries go ND has been cursed the last two years. Would Alabama be able to survive had they suffered a similar fate? Impossible to know but there depth is much better than NDs due to better recruiting.

  12. This game was in no way like the beating Bama gave ND in 2012. That was a HUGE disparity in talent, coaching, execution and attitude. To me, ND didn’t belong in this game and wasn’t ready to take on Ohio State. Say what we want by the Buckeyes, they were defending champs. 3 points away from being in the Playoff, and quite frankly, loaded from top to bottom with talent.

    The ND defense has sucked most of the year. Smith going down in the 1st quarter definitely didn’t help. Neither did all the other injuries and suspensions. Personally, I don’t feel as bad about this loss as the title game in 2012. That game showed me ND had light years to go to compete.

    This team/program benefits from the QB’s maturing. It’s loaded at RB, OL and WR. The defense is where my concerns are. If that can be improved, there’s no reason this team can’t compete for the playoffs next year.

    Pretend we aren’t talking about Notre Dame for a second. I tell you there’s a team that loses it’s starting QB, RB, TE, NT, and a host of players in the secondary. And they lose to the #1 team in the country, on the road, by 2 points. They then lose to a team that wins by Rose Bowl on a last second field goal.

    Then play the defending champs and lose their best player in the first quarter, battle back in the 2nd and 3rd and give up a late TD to make it 44-28. I’d be willing to bet the defeatist attitude wouldn’t be there – and you’d be saying, “that’s a lot to accomplish considering.”

  13. For all the talk of BK and Co. improving the talent level at ND, it seems that the distance between the Irish and Bama, for example, is bigger than it was in 2012. The Crimson Tide would’ve scored close to 60 on ND and would’ve probably allowed no more than 7.

    That’s just pathetic to think about. This is what so many here seem to find acceptable. I will never be one of those.

    I’d rather see ND take its integrity into the Ivy League and concede it can no longer be competitive in the modern era of college football than continue this decades-long decline into mediocrity.

    It’s very painful to watch ND get humiliated whenever a January bowl game come around against a BCS power. Coaches come and ago the results in January bowl games remains the same. This is not about BK. It’s bigger than that. It’s about a sea-change in college football over the last 30 or so years, one in which ND has barely kept afloat and now is in the risk of drowning. It’s time for the administration to throw the football team a life jacket or sea it go under, taking with it all the millions of dollars it brings in to the university.

    This may sound apocalyptic. But that’s the way I see it. ND football is sinking fast, at least when it comes to playing and beating elite teams. Disagree if you must, just admit your disagreement is based on blind faith absent any evidence (i.e., truly signature wins in the last 2 decades).

  14. 14-0 in the hole around 7 minutes in 1st quarter. Claw back to 28-21 score with 8 minutes left in 3rd quarter. Then Elliot goes up middle untouched on a 30 plus yard romp to end zone — another big chunk yardage gain all to numerous against an Irish D in 2015. It was a back breaking turn of events—that showed a glaring display of players out of position in replay or too slow in reaction to a hand off from OSU QB to RB Elliot — this running play developed 10 yards back behind line of scrimmage. I don’t know what BVG teaches or what his schemes are. Apparently these kids are consumed in “assignments” on the field and the pursuit of actually who has the football-is coming too late reaction time. This goes back to last season under BVG. The tackling has been shoddy , the ability to cause fumbles/turnovers is worst since I’ve seen , and no pass rusher since that freshmen named Aaron–who transferred. Please don’t tell me Tuitt and Nix were prolific pass rushers. Hats off to the 127 for getting 10 wins with a roster decimated by injuries. Hats off to the newcomers who got us to those 10 wins , a #4 ranking at one time and to the Fiesta Bowl. Kizer , whether he starts in 2016 or not , was phenomenal –as was Adams , Prosise , Fuller , Hunter and veterans Brown and Carlisle. O-line ? A lot better than 2014. The D for ND is not acceptable. Even with injuries , the lack of pursuit , shoddy tackling and causing fumbles/turnovers is lacking in the next tier of “next man in.” Better recruits needed on D and maybe a new DC. I say BVG has not improved the defense from last season to this season. All I know is under his helm , it ain’t working.

  15. The one thing missing was the play of the LB’s. ND needs better play out of their LB’s. They need a dominate Mike linebacker. I love Joe Schmidt, but he seemed to have lost a step after his injury. Next year they need to develop strength up the middle and a solid Mike LB

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